I don’t know about you, but for me, life is just hard sometimes. With work, family, relationships, obligations—sometimes the pressure of it all can be overwhelming. It’s no secret that working to relieve all that stress is part of a healthy lifestyle. But did you know stress can actually speed up the aging process?

Yes, it’s true. Just check out some of these before/after photos of recent presidents who have seems to age a lot more than the physical time of their terms. The photos are incredible and show exactly how the arguably most stressful job in the world can take it’s toll on the body. Let’s take a look at just how stress can speed up the aging journey.

What is Stress?

Okay, ready to get a bit technical? Here’s what’s going on in your body when you experience stress.

Stress is sensed by the amygdala - at the base of the brain this sensor lets the body know if you’re experiencing a threatening situation. It prepares the body for survival mode—fighting or fleeing from the stress at hand. Chemicals, like norepinephrine, cortisol and adrenaline are released which trigger bodily functions that fuel the body’s response system. Heart rate increases as blood is redirected from other areas of the body and muscles tense up to prepare to fight or run in a hurry. The prefrontal cortex of the brain is then activated. This is the rational part of the brain that can determine whether the stress episode is warranted. Note here that the physical reaction happens BEFORE the rational one.

The brain works to block out other stimuli and focus on the stress event. That means these chemical triggers divert attention away from other things—food goes undigested and the immune system can be suppressed.

When over-used, the amygdala and prefrontal cortex can become hypersensitive to situations. Enter: chronic stress and overreactions to non-life threatening situations.

How Stress Ages Us

The chemicals released in a stress event are meant to help the body survive. Going back to our primal roots, the reactions literally helped us fight or run from danger. But when experienced frequently, they work more to hinder than to help. Prolonged exposure to chemicals like cortisol can trigger a variety of unpleasant side-effects.

  • Heart disease - Stress makes the heart pump faster and faster to get blood to where it needs to go. After a lot of stress, your body will start to think that’s the new normal and raise your blood pressure to accommodate.
  • Diabetes - Ever hear of stress eating? To combat the well, icky feelings of stress, the body craves foods and other chemicals that will trigger serotonin (the happy chemical). Yep, we’re talking sugar and lots of it. A poor diet comes with an array of unhealthy side effects including diabetes and heart disease.
  • Insomnia - During a stress episode, the body focuses on the stressor at hand. Other things get blurred out in the background. If you’re worrying about a meeting coming up, you’re not getting very good sleep. Sleep is a biologically needed act that allows our cells to stay young by rejuvenating and replenishing.  
  • Sickness - As the body focusses on the stressors, it spends less time fighting disease which means you are more susceptible to common illnesses. For seniors this is really a concern. An already decreased immune system can mean bad news when cold season rolls around.
  • Dying cells - Dying cells accelerate the aging process. Cortisol, released during a stress episode, counters the body’s ability to replenish cells during the division process (read more of the technical speak here (http://www.apa.org/monitor/2014/10/chronic-stress.aspx)).  

What You Can Do to Fight Stress

The problem with stress is that you can’t see when levels are getting too high and since the reasoning part of the response system kicks in last, you could be far down the road before you can take a step back. So the best way to combat stress is to be proactive.

  • Meditate - That’s right, I’m talking deep breathing. Don’t be scared off by meditation. Meditation is simply clearing the mind - all the to do lists, negative voices, obligations that nag in the  back of your head - cleared. Start simply by taking 10 deep breaths first thing each morning. Simple. Focus on that breath, try to think of nothing else but breathing. Practicing clearing your mind in non-stressful situations will help you be more equipped to clear it in stressful ones.
  • Track - you may not be able to catch stress as it’s happening, but you certainly recognize it when it’s over. Keep a journal of those times and situations where you feel the most stress. Maybe it’s on your way to work? Maybe it’s before a big meeting? Maybe it’s trying to figure out what to have for dinner? What physical signs did you notice first - the muscles tensing up, the gut feeling?
  • Act - analyze your journal. What can you do to minimize those stressful moments? If you’re stressed out at work, maybe it’s time to look for a new job. If you’re stressed out before a meeting, perhaps you could take 5 minutes before a meeting to do some deep breaths. If you’re stressed out about dinner, work to create a meal plan.

Stress doesn’t have to be a cause of the aging process. You can make proactive aging steps today to minimize the harmful effects of the stress response. Just remember to breathe!

Read more about the science behind stress